They are quiet about it now, out of deference to my mother’s illness. But for years, I understood–in a slow dawning revelation that accompanied puberty and eventual adulthood–that love my parents as they might, my extended family (and select, less-close friends) found aspects of my parents, as a couple, perplexing. The trips to tiny hardscrabble mountain towns instead of beaches. The lack of demand for, or even expectation of, extravagant love gifts in the traditionally gendered line of things–flowers, menswear, fancy wine, sports equipment. My father built models. My mother assisted. Painting, sawing, making plaster and lead casts together–these were the activities they pursued, when we kids weren’t requiring attention. That, and watching Xena Warrior Princess.
I didn’t realize the disconnect between my parents and their related observers until I had to protect them. Someone decided I was old enough, at 18 or 19, to start mining for information–how was their marriage, anyway? So-and-so was worried about them–how “were things?” I was so taken aback by the both the artlessness of the question and my own outrage over the idea that I would sell my parents out like that, that it took me a moment to conjure up a deflection. But I did, and continued to do so, swallowing the disgust. Did you really think I’d rat on them like that? I wanted to snarl. I had intuited, from the careful way my mother spoke sometimes around our relatives, that there was a gossip mill whose grinding wheels she wanted to avoid. It wasn’t until I was approached for fodder that I understood the legitimacy behind her unease. I was, to be sure, a sullen, cantankerous teenager, thoroughly selfish and self-absorbed. But I was also fiercely loyal, and attached to my loyalty a furious kind of pride. Go snuffle at someone else’s doorstep for your schadenfreude, I thought disdainfully. Proudly.
It was not that way with my sister. She wanted our parents to be different, “normal.” She idolized the parents of all her significant others and made a big deal about becoming their friends and singing their praises. “His parents are going on a cruise. Why don’t Mom and Dad go on cruises?” I’d give her a blank look. “They hate tourist boats,” I’d reply. As if being trapped on a floating freak show filled with too-wide Hollywood smiles and the same entitled, lobster-tinted snowbirds held any appeal for me either. But my sister was insistent, long past the age she should have known better. She hated the model-building, the small town trips, the swords and chakrams on the walls. She wanted our parents to be cut out of some magazine and pasted into her life like the pretty people she taped to her notebook covers. Or the parents of her boyfriends, with their manicures and their golf clubs and their hollow conversations. “His mom will find me a real prom dress. Mom just doesn’t get it.”
Even the relatives who rooted for dirt on our parents received a higher grade in her eyes. “They, like, do partner yoga and stuff. Mom and Dad should do partner yoga.” As if Mom would want to subject herself to the fat-shaming of a yoga class, or as if Dad’s injured body would even bend into a pigeon pose? But it wasn’t so much that my sister saw problems in our parents’ lives she wanted to fix. It was that she wanted to show them off as prime specimens of Parents, to be trotted out among other Parents as matching accessories. Part of a set. I choose you, storybook mom and dad! Gotta catch ’em all!
I found that very, very hard to forgive.
Because, growing up, when my mom told me not to care about what other people thought, I listened. Sure, I internalized body image doubt as much as the next girl, but when people jeered at me or whispered about me, I clamped my jaw shut and blocked them out. I got good grades. I ran. I understood that my dad really did know more than most dads about history and politics and that, especially as a student trying to do well enough to explore worlds far away from home, I could use that, and did. And when I wasn’t fighting fiercely and admittedly with some relish with Dad over everything I could think of, I was grateful for his not giving a shit about what the neighborhood parental cliques thought. For our house not being full of relationship self-help books like I’d seen in other houses–for my parents not needing it.
This came up because I found all of Xena available to stream on Netflix. And it’s hard for me to hear the intro song and not cry. While my MIL was telling her daughters not to eat so much because fat women don’t get married, my mom (in answer to my query about Renee O’Connor’s body change from season one to seasons five and six) was telling me to wait and enjoy my body in my thirties, that it would behave the same way hers did and that it would be fun–that I had a right to that fun. While my future FIL was slamming my husband into a fridge, my dad was providing running historical commentary on the Cleopatra story arc. I have tried to explain my parents before, using Xena as a lens because it’s a cultural touchstone people remember. And inevitably, all they do is laugh. Your freaky parents liked watching the lesbians, huh? That’s kind of weird. I get a little wild. Well so am I! I snap. And they didn’t t raise me to feel like I have to apologize to the likes of you for it!
When the show ended, my parents thought the ending was bullshit. Xena’s soul locked away past all hope of reincarnation (which by now had happened something like four or five times), doomed never to see Gabrielle again, even in the afterlife. “They’ll fix this,” my dad said. “You watch. They’ll do a movie or something. They’ll get them back together.”
They didn’t. But my parents believed enough in love to think they should have. Which is more than you could say about most of the shitty suburban marriages that surrounded us with their perfect nails and shiny riding mowers and their agonizingly contrived Christmas card mailings. I’ll take Xena and Gabrielle over the Cleavers any day. My parents felt the same. I will not accept your pity for their difference any more than for the hardships they now face. And I will not give you gossip in which to wallow like a hog in a slops trough. I love them too much.